Jess Russell- ‘Growth, Decay, Dispersal and Disintegration’

The title of William Basinski’s 2001 composition ‘Disintegration Loops’ might refer to the rolling course of corroded magnetic tape from which the audio was made, but it also reads as a statement. Disintegration loops: the growth and decay of the world is cyclical. This theme held up throughout our discussion as we spoke of ageing and the body, the poetics of human hair and how bodily materials become relics. I let Basinski’s piece play as we spoke.

Listen to William Basinski’s  ‘Disintegration Loops’

The week before, as she was saying goodnight to me, my Granny had mused something that I couldn’t help referring back to as it was such a stark comment about the body dismantling itself in age. Granny commented that by the time she’s taken her glasses off and her hearing aid out and her false teeth out, there’s not much of her left. Terrifically bleak and characteristically random, to me her observation had a compelling connection to my recent work involving contact lenses. I have been curating pairs of my old and damaged contact lenses in museum style displays along with captions such as ‘Six Months of Sight’. Echoing Granny’s question, what would I be without those small, now redundant circles of plastic? A curious point was raised about how glassses, contact lenses, hearing aids and false teeth are all ‘identity objects’, personal in their intimacy with the body, in their particularity to a person, and in their conservation of aging and changing identities.


I’ve always had a fascination for and a sensitivity towards decay, whether in small everyday encounters or in an awareness of the Earth’s impermanence. While away at university, and only seeing family infrequently, the changes that occur on a human scale have become more evident to me. When I do go home, everyone is that slight bit older, that slight bit slower than my memory had them preserved. These changes were magnified this year when my mum was diagnosed with lymphoma and began chemotherapy. Mum herself suggested I use her hair, which she had collected as it fell out, for an artwork – it was perhaps some comfort to us both that this loss would not go to waste. The topic of hair seemed to resonate with many in the group, and we discovered that there is a vast amount of ritual and myth concerning the subject. It was suggested to me I look at other artists who use hair, including Annette Messager and Alice Maher. We discussed how women’s hair is particularly charged, and how there are many poignant connotations to it being cut. If I were to make an artwork with my mum’s hair, the material will therefore always transcend the personal story and take on other associations

The conversation moved on to how bodily objects are kept and displayed. We spoke about Victorian mourning jewelry, made from the braided hair of the dead. It was mentioned how religious relics are often kept in extremely intricate protective cases; the more covers and layers of concealment, the more important the object. This resonated strongly with my investigations into how to display objects to ‘elevate’ their value. How might I display my mum’s hair meaningfully and respectfully? I posed the question to the group about how to deal with making very personal work because there is a lot of pressure that accompanies ideas so close to the heart. Is it always the right thing to do? Is it necessary for the audience to know what the work is about? How to manage this proximity seems to be one of the key inquiries to which Cafe Morte discussions return. This time we came to the conclusion that it is very important to wait until the work feels right to make, and that when it does it is a very valuable thing to do.

I recently read that newborn babies cannot see properly until they are at least 12 months of age, and that as adult eyes grow old they gradually return to this state of obscure and imperfect vision. With all the inherited sincerity of my lovely 89 year old Gran, I might observe that this growth towards and then detachment from the world is another example of how life and death and disintegration loop.

Author- Jess Russell (Café Morte)